It all begins on the left side of the chest – the strange tingling sensation that slowly builds into deep, gnawing agony. The pain radiates outward, running along the length of one arm and down the ribs like wildfire. Finally, breathing becomes increasingly difficult, impossible even, as the lungs seem to collapse under their own weight. These – chest pain, upper body discomfort, and shortness of breath – are the most common symptoms of myocardial infarction, more commonly known as heart attack (“What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?”). Each year close to a million Americans suffer from the condition, many of whom are caught unawares (“What Is a Heart Attack?”). Heart attack and a few other disorders stand out for their frightening ability to strike suddenly and stealthily. As a result, advanced precautionary measures are being taken to protect at-risk individuals from these silent killers.
An exciting addition to these efforts, wearable medical technology transmits a patient’s health information to a team of medical professionals or to the patients themselves, keeping them abreast of new developments so that they may be warned of any troubling signs before a health emergency occurs. The benefits of such a system are vast: 24-hour health monitoring, increased control over chronic disease, and early notification of illness and increased survival as a result (McNickle). However, there are also several pitfalls. By design, these devices are also outfitted to monitor a patient’s lifestyle choices – a spike in blood sugar could signal to doctors that a diabetic has had one too many prohibited sugary snacks. This raises the issue of balancing patient well-being with patient autonomy, a patient’s right to exert free will over his or her own body – even if it is to the detriment of that body.
It all begins on the left side of the chest…”
Moreover, with the ability to collect such personal data comes the great responsibility – and burden—of protecting it. In fact, the direct, intimate nature of the information makes it particularly vulnerable and alluring to potential hackers. Leaked data could foreseeably be sold to insurance companies that in turn might use the information to discriminate against those with medical conditions. This dilemma begs the question: is it wise to put patient privacy at increased risk in order to promote patient health? The answer is no doubt complicated. But despite the drawbacks, real-time transmission in medical devices gives patients a much needed upper hand in the war against disease.
A prime example of such life-saving technology in action, the portable Holter monitor tracks cardiac function for up to two weeks at a time (Zimetbaum). The battery-operated device consists of electrodes that adhere to a patient’s chest and connect to a recording apparatus small enough to be worn around the waist or neck (Dugdale). While in use, the monitor takes stock of the heart’s electrical activity and later reports the findings to a physician who can then pinpoint any irregularities. Though the device does not deliver results instantly (it collects data in real-time and is subsequently returned to a doctor for analysis), it can detect alarming trends faster and more reliably than traditional electrocardiograms (“Holter Monitor”). A testament to their success and simplicity, Holter monitors are currently being implemented as part of rehabilitation and observation programs for people suffering from heart disease and heart failure (“Holter Monitor”).
However, with the advent of live-streaming medical information also comes the danger of indulging in an unhealthy, compulsive preoccupation with the body. A strong argument can be made that the chronically ill are in desperate need of this technology, but the path forward for the rest of the population is not as clear. Such devices can bring out the hypochondriac in us, every blip of the machine misconstrued as a catastrophic event, the constant worry about benign abnormalities and meaningless variations causing panic. As a result, healthy individuals could overwhelm hospitals and doctors’ offices, thereby increasing health costs and diverting care from those who truly need it. On the other hand, how can we withhold healthcare in the face of an abnormal finding? What if that seemingly small anomaly does indeed point to a larger problem? In any case, it is evident that the development of these devices is quickly outpacing our attempts to regulate their use: the need to know and be reassured that we are whole propels the technology forward, leaving the policy to play catch-up (Tsukayama). From counting our steps using pedometers to monitoring our heart rate on the treadmill, we savor the feeling of being clued in to and in control of our bodies. And as we teeter on the razor’s edge between knowledge and obsession, we must ensure that healthy concern does not morph into all-consuming fixation.
- Dugdale, David C., III, Michael A. Chen, and David Zieve. “Holter Monitor (24h): MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 22 June 2012. Web. 12 July 2014.
- “Holter Monitor.” Holter Monitor. The American Heart Association, 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 July 2014.
- “Holter Monitor.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, 9 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 July 2014.
- McNickle, Michelle. “10 Wearable Health Tech Devices To Watch – InformationWeek.” InformationWeek. N.p., 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 12 July 2014.
- Tsukayama, Hayley. “Wearable Tech Such as Google Glass, Galaxy Gear Raises Alarms for Privacy Advocates.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 12 July 2014.
- “What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?” NHLBI, NIH. NHLBI, NIH, 17 Dec. 13. Web. 11 July 2014.
- “What Is a Heart Attack?” NHLBI, NIH. NHLBI, NIH, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 July 2014.
- Zimetbaum, Peter, and Alena Goldman. “Ambulatory Arrhythmia Monitoring: Choosing the Right Device.” Circulation 122.16 (2010): 1629-1636. Print.
Charissa Iluore is the Brevia Features editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.